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Edition 41

Contents
Fiction

My paintings

I DIDN'T WANT to know why you left me. Reasons are ephemeral, and it's the consequences that I've been carrying around with me. Like a curse? You often mocked me for being melodramatic. But yes, like a curse. Whatever made you leave is neither here nor there. What I've been living with since you left has been a dark figure in my dreams, an angry spectre whenever I feel lonely.

No Jason, I had no desire to find you and hold you accountable or even seek answers for long-ago questions. It's been unbelievably hard raising two children on my own and yes, I've stopped painting. But I feel no resentment for having had to work so hard as a jilted single mother. Our girls, their love and compassion, more than make up for all the night shifts, night schools and poorly paid casual work over the years. It's the sadness of losing my art that's remained with me, Jason. Paint brushes feel alien to my fingers, and paints no longer reveal their secret colours.

I know you never really cared much for my paintings. What attraction could my miniscule pictures hold for a man dedicated to protecting endangered marine life from sinister whalers and their sharp harpoons? You had your famous missions. You were globally admired for your courage to sail on vessels that interfered with the wicked Japanese whalers. Such an extraordinary and audacious man. So no, I never did expect you to think much of my pretty little paintings.

And I accepted your indifference, Jason, because I felt lucky. So lucky to have the heroic animal rights warrior Jason Sømand all to myself. I really was ecstatic when you appeared in my show more than ten years ago. You later said it was destiny that had guided you to an obscure art gallery in Fitzroy. You could've been talking to journalists instead, relishing your fame and the adoration of your thousands of admirers during your first visit to Australia, bragging about all those whales you'd saved.

But for some inexplicable reason you were drawn to my opening, to my tiny artworks and my cheap wine. I was bedazzled by you, and by you wanting to see me the next day. I was just an unknown, utterly insignificant artist and an art school dropout, and all my friends, even the guys, were now insanely jealous of me. Did it surprise you that I slept with you so soon after our first date, so readily? Did you ever doubt my love? Is that why you left me?

No, I don't care about that. As I said, I'm only concerned with the results of your vanishing, the never-ending murmur of loss and catastrophe that's never far from my mind's ear. That's why I came here. Not to show you that I've survived, because I haven't, not completely. A part of me, the artist in me, died when you disappeared, Jason. This may sound strange, but I had come to believe my art was the medium for praising you. I had begun painting your light blue eyes and golden eyebrows in every picture, in every form and in every composition. And was I to blame? Was I so impressionable?

I was simply over the moon when you asked me to marry you. And I didn't mind it that you didn't want us to visit your parents in Skagen. Did I think it strange that you were resolutely against me meeting them? Since my relationship with my own parents had been so fractured, I did not feel entitled to query your broken family ties. I was happy to have you, in my arms, a dashing man in my wedding photos, and my lover and companion in our new home.

I suppose what's been hurting most over the last ten years, Jason, has been my regret over having really loved you. Had you simply been a wish fulfilment or a sexual infatuation, I would have got over you. I would've continued to paint while holding all those jobs, seeing the girls through kinder, preschool and into primary school. I've never been afraid of hard work, and I'd never been crippled by a broken heart. But, to be perfectly honest, Jason, I thought you were the reason I had been put on this earth. An awful overstatement? A cliché? You always accused me of being over-the-top. But yes, I was sure that I was and would always be yours.

 

I HAD NOT heard from Alex for years. To be precise, I had not heard from him since getting involved with you. Was I pleased to receive an email from him last month? I suppose I should have been. I have been more or less single for a decade and flimsy relationships and casual sex have done nothing to alleviate loneliness. And Alex had always been, in his own awkward way, enamoured of me.

A woman faced with the encroachment of wrinkles and other omens of the middle age should have been delighted to hear from an old flame. But it would be no exaggeration, Jason, to say that I have lost my desire for men. It's that simple, a banal reality of my life. Or a curse, if you prefer my earlier metaphor.

Alex's email was short, and to the point. He said he'd found my address on the website of the English language centre where I've been working for the last couple of years. He then asked if I'd heard the news about you. He wrote that he happened to be living in Shanghai, and that if I wanted to see you or speak to you one last time, he could arrange for me to visit you in prison.

Of course I had heard about what had happened, and of course I was in denial about the whole thing. Thankfully none of my new friends and workmates knows about my previous marriage to the once-famous Danish anti-whaling activist. And my old friends and sister don't mention you around me. So I had been able to evade, suppress and forget what I'd heard of your ordeal on the news, until I received Alex's email.

I told the girls I had to meet an old friend, which was partly true. Alex had been after me since our first studio workshop in art school. He had been painfully shy and inexperienced with women, and had resigned himself to being my friend. I'm sure he still wanted to be with me and was on the verge of confessing his eternal love to me when you entered my life ten years ago. And yes, realising that I had fallen madly in love with another man, he had decided to finally give up.

Alex met me at Shanghai Airport. I barely recognised him. I remembered him as an anxious and somewhat chubby character, with shabby hair and colourful clothes. The rather gaunt figure who greeted me was wearing a black suit and appeared either very confident or extremely aloof. It was hard to believe someone could change so much in only a decade.

He drove me out of the airport. I gradually eased into the cream leather seats and wondered how an art school graduate like him could afford a car like this. As you'd remember, Jason, I've never been interested in cars, although I did end up finally biting the bullet and getting my licence six years ago when I could no longer take the girls to school, go to work and pick them up again without a car. So I suppose I too have changed over the years. I wonder what Alex thought of me when he saw me. Could he tell that I'm no longer a dreamy artist but a hardened single mother who teaches conversational English and intermediate level grammar?

He dropped me off at a very nice hotel. He told me he'd be back in a couple of hours to take me to meet your lawyer and then the officials who could permit me to visit you. I thanked him and asked him if he wanted to join me for a coffee. I thought that was the polite thing to do. He was clearly reluctant, but agreed, also out of politeness.

'It must've come as a huge shock to you.'

I nodded and told him that the girls know nothing about you, their father.

'I didn't know you had children. How old are they?'

I answered and showed him a picture of my lovely girls.

'They look nothing like him.'

He spoke coldly and had a delicate sip of his very hot green tea. He had ordered us the tea in perfect – or at least what struck me as perfect – Mandarin.

I asked him how long he's been in Shanghai, and what he's doing here.

'About ten years, since I left Melbourne. I was sick of, you know, being a struggling artist and all that. Came here to teach English, and ended up staying. Now have my own art gallery. We sell mostly to Europeans. Postmodern, ironic kitsch stuff. Do you still paint?'

I told him the truth in spite of myself.

'It's understandable, with what you've been through.'

How could he possibly know what you've put me through, Jason? And why was he not smug and triumphant, knowing that it's now been proven, beyond any doubt, that I'd chosen to give my heart to the wrong man?

'You should probably get some rest. I've been in contact with Jason's lawyer and he'll be expecting to see us in less than two hours.'

I wanted to ask him why he was doing this. Does he still have feelings for me, after all these years and after all the times I'd rejected his advances before that? Not very likely. Or does he want me to see for myself that the man I chose over him is now a grotesque pariah?

 

THEY LED ME through a corridor, down a set of stairs, through another corridor and into an elevator. Your lawyer was accompanying me, although he had avoided me all day. Perhaps he felt guilty for his failure, or maybe I disgusted him, as the woman who had once been married to the infamous 'foreign devil'.

We were joined by a uniformed official before entering the room where I was to meet you. His English was much better than the lawyer's, and he emphasised that at the first mention of anything that could be considered 'threatening to the People's Republic of China's legal and national integrity' our meeting would be interrupted.

It was a featureless white room. Did I expect our reunion to take place in a more romantic setting? No, Jason. I knew the minute they brought you in that I no longer had any romantic feelings whatsoever for you. Even with a shaved head, grey prisoner's uniform and protruding belly you were immediately recognisable as the man I had once given everything to, and I recognised then and there that you had so very nearly destroyed my life.

'So it really is you. I can't believe it. I've missed you so much.'

Had you always sounded so insincere, so deceptive?

'I'm sorry for what happened between us. I was so stupid. So careless.'

The officer motioned for us to sit at the white table while he and the lawyer remained standing.

'I didn't know how to support you and your art. I was feeling tired and useless all the time. I didn't think I'd make a good father. How are my children?'

I refused to answer you, Jason, and told you that I hadn't come to talk about the past.

'That's okay. Listen. I don't have a lot of time left. You have to find me a new lawyer. Go to the Danish embassy. You've come to help me, yes?'

I didn't know what to say to that, and kept my silence.

'I've been framed. You know I can't possibly be guilty of this disgusting thing. Look. I know the guy who did it. He set me up.'

The officer coughed and the lawyer fidgeted.

'Why aren't you saying anything? You know I'm innocent, yes?'

I was finding it difficult to breathe, and not only because your lawyer had lit up a cigarette in that small oppressive space.

'Listen. I was framed. This guy…'

The officer took a step towards the table to terminate your words with his proximity, but you knew this was your last chance.

'Australian guy. An art dealer. He framed me. I don't know why. Look…'

The officer spoke into his phone and motioned for me to stand up.

'Please don't let them kill me. For God's sake. Please.'

Guards came in and you fell quiet. You refused to stand up. You wanted me to say something before the end of our meeting, and I did.

'I came here, Jason, to tell you that I forgive you. I forgive you, Jason. That's all.'

 

ALEX OFFERED ME a tissue from his pocket and I blew my nose.

'Why, Alex?'

He kept his lips pursed and his eyes on the congested road but, at hearing my question, his hands trembled on the stirring wheel.

'Because of what he did to me?'

He sighed and finally mumbled.

'Beth. He's not as innocent as he says he is.'

I rolled down the window. Perhaps fresh air may have helped me make sense of what had taken place, but I instead breathed in an acrid puff of pollution. My troubled mind was acting without my control, determined to leave you and your situation behind. The image of your pleading eyes faded as I spotted an exquisite ancient temple amid a cluster of hideous, blue-glass, modern buildings.

Alex's car came to a halt in the traffic jam. I stared out and lost myself in the chiselled columns of guardian dragons on the facade of the temple. They were majestic. And when I looked up I saw the top of a delicately tiered pagoda, peering over the entrance to the temple.

'Did you know, Alex, pagodas were sometimes used as tombs?'

'I had no idea, Beth.'

'I'm really fascinated by different burial rituals around the world. What do you want done with you when you're dead? I wouldn't mind a sky burial, but I don't think the girls would appreciate that.'

He looked me in the eye and, for the first time since my arrival in China, smiled at me.

'They've gotta repay you for all you've done for them, Beth. Cutting up their mum and feeding her to vultures is the least they could do for you.'

I can't believe that I actually laughed, Jason, after all that I'd seen and discovered and felt that day.

'They've put in requests for panda dolls.'

'I know a really good toy shop. We can go there tonight. After dinner. I mean…that's if you wanted to have…get something to eat…with me, Beth.'

I could feel his breathing grow heavy, and I didn't know how to answer him.

But what I did know, Jason, was that I was and am done with this, with speaking to you in my mind when I should be having a simple internal monologue. I don't want your ghost in my heart and in my head anymore. And I am deeply impressed by the care and skill Chinese sculptors have invested in creating commonplace dragons for decorating their temples.

'I think I'm going to paint again, Alex. Do you remember my paintings?'


From Griffith Review Edition 41: Now We are Ten © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review